OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) - Justin Tucker has a knack for putting the exclamation point on drives that come up short of the goal line.
Tucker has kicked nine field goals this season for the Baltimore Ravens, who are unbeaten after three games primarily because of his unfailing accuracy - especially with the outcome hanging in the balance.
Since landing a four-year, $6.8 million contract during the offseason, Tucker has scored in a big way for Baltimore. He hasn’t missed a kick and accounted for all 12 of the team’s fourth-quarter points, including a game-winning, 53-yard field goal last Sunday in a 19-17 win at Jacksonville.
The kick - changed officially from 54 yards by the NFL on Wednesday - concluded a desperate drive by Joe Flacco that fizzled at the Jaguars’ 35.
“When games come down to the final possession,” Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said, “you want a quarterback with ice in his veins, and you (darn) sure want a kicker with ice in his veins as well.”
Although the Ravens have thus far reached the end zone only four times, Tucker has rescued the offense by scoring 31 of the team’s 57 points.
“I don’t think of it as any added pressure,” Tucker said Wednesday. “If the game dictates that we need to kick four field goals, then we’d better make four field goals. If the game dictates that I just need to make a few PATs while we’re beating up somebody, that’s exactly what I will do. I just need to make kicks, regardless of the situation.”
The opposition has taken notice. The Ravens face Oakland (2-1) on Sunday, and Raiders coach Jack Del Rio knows Tucker rarely misfires in the first quarter or the last.
“He’s been phenomenal,” Del Rio said. “Tucker is second all-time in terms of field goal kicks, and they’re not all short ones. He’s pretty amazing.”
Indeed, Tucker ranks second behind Dallas’ Dan Bailey in career field percentage. Bailey is at 90.4 percent, and Tucker is moving up the chart at 88.5 percent.
Tucker made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and has won 12 games with field goals, most notably three years ago when he beat Detroit with a career-best 61-yarder.
That’s why the Ravens slapped the franchise tag on him during the offseason before handing him a $6 million signing bonus in July to go with his four-year deal.
“Justin has become a cornerstone for our team,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said at the time.
Instead of pressing to prove his worth, Tucker merely went back to work.
“My approach to how I kick a ball is unaffected by what happens on the business side of football,” he said. “If I looked at it any other way, I’d be doing a disservice to everybody in here.”
Tucker’s job is made easier by his familiarity with long snapper Morgan Cox and holder Sam Koch. Since 2012, when Tucker arrived as a rookie, the trio has worked to make sure the kick is headed toward the goalposts in 1.3 seconds.
“It’s imperative to have a consistent operation,” Tucker said. “It’s definitely a big part of the reason why I’m able to be confident kicking the ball.”
Koch believes Tucker’s success can be attributed to hard work in practice and the ability to stay loose under pressure.
“As a kicker, you have to be able to get over your last kick - whether it’s bad or good - and be able to move on,” Koch said. “He has the character that allows him to do that. He has fun at it.”
While playing high school ball in Texas, Tucker performed on both sides of the ball, kicked field goals and punted. During that time, the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder realized his best hope of becoming a pro was as a placekicker.
“I looked up to Adam Vinatieri, Matt Stover, Phil Dawson, Robbie Gould,” Tucker said. “Now that I’m playing in the same league as these guys, I still have to pinch myself every day. It’s a dream come true.”
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